LESSON 3: PLAYER EXPERIENCE - The Cardboard Designer

LESSON 3: PLAYER EXPERIENCE

Player experience is the beating heart of your game. It’s the feeling that you want to create inside the player and the reason that makes them want to keep your game front and center on their gaming shelf

Whenever I play a game of Karuba with my wife, I get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. She is very very good at it, to the point that it is very difficult to beat her. After 3 or 4 games in a row, by which point I am usually curled up in the fetal position under the kitchen table, she declares all out victory, boxes it back up and puts it as pride of place on our gaming shelf. She will then usually make me a cup of tea and give me a Ginger Nut biscuit (the way to an Englishman’s soul) just so there are no hard feelings. So why do I keep agreeing to this punishment? Why do we keep going back to Karuba so much, despite having a couple of hundred games to choose from.

It’s fairly simple really – no other game makes me feel like an adventurer seeking out lost treasure for fame and glory the same way Karuba does.

That, is my player experience of Karuba, and essentially the reason why I keep pulling it off the shelf to play.

Good game design is player-centric. That means that we always think about the player when ever we are working on the game:

  • Why does the player want to play?
  • How does the player win?
  • How does the player carry out their turn?
  • What things does the player need to do?

By making the player the center of your game and constantly focusing on how you are making them feel through the experience, you can focus on creating something that people will want to player, rather than just something you want to create.

It also provides some really powerful tools to you as a designer by constantly refocusing your efforts through specific questions.

To return to the car analogy I mentioned in the previous lesson, the player experience would be how the car feels to drive. There is a great deal of difference between driving a limo, a sports-car or a jeep for example! None of these experiences are wrong, but they are very different.

High level experience and gameplay adjectives

Player experience comes in 2 flavors, the overall experience that you want them to have, and the way you want them to feel as they play through the game.

The high level experience of some popular games might be as follows:

  • I want the player to feel like a member of the CDC trying to eradicate the world of disease before society is destroyed – Pandemic
  • I want the player to feel like a bird collector and breeder attracting beautiful wildlife to their own nature reserve – Wingspan
  • I want the player to feel like a hero trying to pull off a frantic heist in a magical shopping mall – Magic Maze
  • I want the player to stay on the edge of their seat, pushing their luck in the hopes of not being blown up by a tnt tabby – Exploding Kittens

These might not be the exact player-experiences the designer intended when creating the game, but the point is they will have had the fact that we can identify such a strong experience in the game is testament to the thought put into it.

Gameplay adjectives can be used to create a certain feeling from the player as they progress through your game:

  • unhinged
  • erratic
  • methodical
  • constructive
  • frightened
  • trapped
  • outcast
  • secretive
  • cautious
  • leisurely
  • focused
  • emtional

Above is tiny selection of an almost endless list of options at your disposal of the way you want your players to feel when they play your game.

It’s a very powerful way of keeping your wheels on the track as you start to tune or introduce new mechanics into the game. A strategy game would be a very different beast all together if you were to make the gameplay feel constructive over trapped for example. The former might involve building up an army or base, whereas the latter could focus on small groups of units fighting in narrow corridors.

By giving yourself a set of objectives to constrain ideas into meaningful paths, you can continue to hone the details of your game so that it maintains the intended design. As you make changes you can keep asking yourself – “does my game still make the player feel trapped?”


Hopefully, you can see how using game play adjectives as well as a high level player-experience, it becomes possible to apply a few constraints on yourself without clipping the wings of your creativity. Rather than starting with a completely blank slate where it can be difficult to know where to direct your attention – you instead are given a few beacons to aim your sights at.

Always remember the player. As a designer there is nothing wrong with wanting to make “your game” – you are a player after all. You are however, not the only person who will be playing your game, so throughout it’s development, it is important to ask yourself tough, focused questions. As difficult as it might be to scrap an idea or have to rework a particular mechanic because it takes your game away from the experience you’d intended, it will leave you with a much strong product in the end.

Exercise

Two exercises for you to carry out this time around. As always, I’d love you to share your ideas with in the comments below!

#1

Pick a board game that you’ve played and write down the player experience that the game provides. How much does this experience tie into the overall theme of the game. How do the mechanics support that player experience?

Now think about the game play adjectives you would use to describe the game. Write down at least 5 ways of describing the game play. If you were to replace these adjectives, how might it change the way that the game is played?

#2

I want you to create a game starting with the game play experience and game play adjectives. Construct a sentence starting with – “My game makes the players feel…” Try to pick something unfamiliar that you haven’t done before. If your experience matches another game you can think of, try again!

Once you have your game play experience, write down a few adjectives that you want to support that experience with. Do you want your game to be fast paced and unpredictable or do you want it to be slower and more carefully thought out? How else could you find ways of describing you game?

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